I don’t ask for much out of life. A place to hang my hat, the occasional (daily) bag of those maple bacon kettle chips, and a steady stream of weird ass foreign films to entertain and perplex me. Those who’ve been reading these weekly ramblings of mine will know I’ve had particular success with that last one, and this week is no exception, and as usual I’m sharing it with you, internet. Some would say a post about the Oscars would be more relevant or timely, but frankly I think talking about this movie about a killer tree root baby is a better use of all our time.
Little Otik, also known as Greedyguts and Otesánek, is a 2000 Czech movie based on an old folk tale which, like many Eastern European folk tales, probably didn’t need much reworking to turn it into an impressively bizarre surrealist fever dream. A young couple finds out they can’t conceive, and in a fit of desperation to console his wife, the husband, Karel, digs up an old tree root that sorta looks like a baby, if a baby looked like a cross between a Deku Scrub from the Zelda games and something Lynch would cook up after tripping every ball in the universe.
Immediately latching on to the thing, the wife, Bozena, starts dressing it up and treating it like a real baby, causing her husband to immediately regret his decision, as if creating something creepier than the clown doll from Poltergeist didn’t do that already, and finds himself stuck with an increasingly batshit wife telling all their friends and neighbors she’s expecting.
From there the first third or so of the film plays out like one of those classic “increasingly out of control lie” scenarios, like a 90s sitcom, with Karel having to go to greater and greater lengths to keep the lie going, all the while watching his wife go further and further down the road to straight jackets and Dr. Perceptron.
But then around act two, someone behind the scenes decides this all isn’t inciting enough horrified expressions on the audiences’ faces, and the tree baby, who Karel names Otik, comes to life as a stop motion monstrosity complete with gnashing teeth, the occasional eyeball appearing in his little tube mouth, and more shots of his little wooden baby wiener than anyone should be comfortable with, not that a comfortable audience is something the film seemed to have any interest in. The baby starts to grow larger and hungrier, eventually turning his cring-inducing mouth on the cat, the mailman, and any other poor sap not smart enough to make for the nearest flamethrower the moment they see it.
And then as if this wasn’t enough, the film goes through another massive plot shift around act 3, when the little girl next door finds Otik after his parents lock him in a box in the basement, and decides to take care of it, having read the folk tale this is all based on. At this point the movie goes from dark horror comedy to an actually really interesting way to present a folk tale movie, with the tension coming from whether or not the film will make good on the end of the tale, which foretells Otik meeting his end at the hands of a hoe-wielding cabbage farmer.
The box proclaims the director, Jan Svankmajer as a surrealist master, and brother, I can see why. Even before Otik arrives the film will occasionally bust out some bizarre non-sequiter only vaguely implied to be a representation of someone’s mental state. In the opening scene, Karel looks at a nearby fish monger but sees her fishing out screaming babies and passing them out in newspaper. At numerous points when the local pedophile sets eyes on the little girl who later takes Otik in, his fly opens in stop motion and a fucking hand comes out, which is as uncomfortable to describe as it is to watch.
Even in the basic formal elements there’s just so much weird shit to wonder over. Rather than the normal over the shoulder shots, obeying the rule of thirds and all that, conversations are often filmed with alternating shots of two people talking directly into the camera, which makes the film feel voyeuristic, and not the kind I’m used to either. Eating and food also seems to be an important point for the film, as closeups of chomping mouths and food being ladled out are things it keeps coming back to. I can’t even tell how much of the film’s sense of disquieting “foreign-ness” actually comes from it being foreign, and how much just comes from it being really damn weird in almost every element.
Although the opening act is amusing for its comedy of lies style, and the second certainly interesting and memorable for its almost early Peter Jackson-esque horror/black comedy absurdity, act three is probably where things got the most interesting for me. Little Otik takes a different track with folkloric adaptations than a lot of movies I’ve seen, turning the usual fairy tale monster dynamic on its head by making the tale itself, and the threat of its culmination, more of a villain or threat than the creature itself. It’s an interesting angle, and shows a kind of of ingenuity and cleverness I genuinely didn’t expect. Though all this does require the audience to root for Otik in the end, pun intended, which is a bit of stretch given that he spends the rest of the film being creepy looking and eating cats and civil servants.
Little Otik is the kind of movie experience I enjoy most, one which can present me with something I’ve never seen before, both thematically and visually. Though it presents the facade of a black comedy creature feature, something in the vein of Rare Exports, the surrealist visuals and interesting treatment of folklore gives Little Otik more artistic merit than I’d expect of a film about killer garden detritus.